Elizabeth Dunbar on leadership: Tell your team the value in their work

This article originally appeared on Syracuse.com on February 5, 2019. By Stan Linhorst.

Read the original article HERE.

Syracuse, NY–Elizabeth Dunbar is director and CEO of the Everson Museum of Art.

Dunbar moved to Syracuse in December 2014. Her first job was to help steady the Everson’s finances. She succeeded and oversees an operating budget of about $2.3 million, up from about $1.6 million when she arrived.

In addition, she’s overseen major renovations of the museum’s auditorium and ceramics gallery. She put programming in place that includes about 20 changing exhibitions annually. She touts the museum’s acclaimed ceramics collection and sees visitors arriving from around the world. The museum created the Danial Family Education Center, engaging with CNY residents young and old. The museum has brought in $13.5 million of the $17 million goal in “The Everson First and Forever” campaign, the largest fund drive in its 120-year history.

The museum was founded in 1897 as the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, became the Everson in the 1950s, and occupied its current home in 1968, a building designed by the acclaimed architect I.M. Pei. A year-long 50th anniversary celebration of its iconic home began in September.

Dunbar earned her master’s from City University in New York, began her career at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and has worked in museums from New York to Los Angeles. She came to the Everson from DiverseWorks in Houston, where she was executive director.

Tell me about growing up and leadership roles.

I didn’t consider myself a natural-born leader. I was not necessarily a joiner, but I never wanted to be one of the sheep that followed either. I kind of wanted to chart my own path.

I grew up around the San Francisco Bay area. I was born in San Mateo. Watsonville was really where we lived. We moved to Texas when I was in junior high school.

My dad worked in the freight department for American Airlines, and they moved the hub from San Francisco to Dallas/Fort Worth in the 1980s.

What I love to tell people, especially since we did a naturalization ceremony in our auditorium in December, both of my parents (Joan and Eugene) are naturalized citizens. I’m a first-generation American.

I think part of my ambition and desire to succeed is coming from that. I was given opportunities for education and to succeed that my parents and grandparents were never able to have. My mother was working in a factory mill at the age of 14 in Northern Ireland. My dad came from Ontario, Canada.

My mother and her family emigrated in the 1950s when she was a teenager and my grandmother was in her 50s. My grandfather (Alexander Strange) was a shoemaker, and my grandmother (Elizabeth Strange) worked at a mill and they saw there was no opportunity for their children. They just picked up their whole family, not knowing a soul, and moved to Burlingame, California.

My grandmother was a real force in my life. I grew up very close to her. She was in a car accident and was run over. She had all kinds of health problems related to her legs, but she would walk to work everyday. She worked in catering at the San Francisco Airport and other blue-collar jobs.

I was a competitive swimmer as a young person. You’re on a team, but it’s an independent type of sport. Working with the team and on relay races and those kinds of things, I had a natural inclination to want to organize it and put my ideas into practice.

It wasn’t until college and early jobs that I started to see leadership potential. I’ve had bosses along the way who gave me a lot of responsibility and really set me out into the world to see what I could do.

I think that’s where leadership skills started to grow. But I look at other leaders and I’m in awe of what they accomplish. When I read your column, sometimes I’m like, wow, I wish I could be like that. They have such sage advice.

Tell me about your experience as a competitive swimmer.

I was swimming from the age of 10 to 17, and I was Texas state record holder. I was training for the Olympics, but I gave it up when I went to college. (Texas Tech.)

I was a sprinter, 100 freestyle. It was a demanding sport, working out six days a week, five hours a day before school and after school. I decided I wanted a real college life. It was a big decision to stop, because we wanted that swimming scholarship to help pay for college. In the end I was glad, because I had missed out on a lot of other things. I didn’t really participate in high school activities because so much time was devoted to swimming.

Tell me your advice for leading effectively.

One of the first things is lead by example and be willing to do the work just like everybody else.

My first jobs were working in the university art museum cleaning textiles and doing basic kinds of things. I became a curatorial assistant at the Whitney. That was my first real job in New York City.

My last job I was the director of an alternative art space in Houston with a staff of seven. So, I’m setting up tables for receptions, cleaning, fundraising, and curating exhibitions. I’ve worked in small institutions and large institutions. So I have seen the big picture and the small picture, and I’ve done all the grunt work and learned to appreciate all the jobs.

A leader should recognize that everybody has a job to play and recognize the value in all of those jobs.

Another thing is: Listen to your staff.

Something we started about two years ago was the daily huddle. Some of our senior staff members get together in the morning just for 15 minutes. Anything can be on the table. Anybody can bring a topic. Some crazy ideas come out of those conversations. Sometimes we’re just getting a chance to bond as a group, but sometimes we have really good ideas that come out of those brainstorming sessions. It’s been a really good way to connect with each other. It facilitates teamwork.

It’s important to acknowledge the people that you work with and thank them for their service. It’s being publicly recognized, and acknowledged, and thanked for a job well done. That’s something I try to do, and I should do it more than I do.

People work here and volunteer here because they feel a particular passion about the arts. It means a lot to them, and it means a lot to me. I mean, we would not exist as an organization without all those people. So I make it a priority to thank them.

It’s extremely important to say thank you.

For effective leadership, freely acknowledge when you don’t know the answer and recognize when you make a mistake. Sometimes, I make a mistake, make the wrong choice, do the wrong thing. Owning up to it is important because you want to instill trust in the people you work with or work for.

Being honest and open is imperative.

When you see leaders that you admire, what qualities do you see?

Can I tell you about two board members in particular?

Of course.

My last two board chairs really helped shape me as a leader: Clifford Malzman, of Cannon Pools, who you’ve featured, and Gary Grossman, of Grossman St. Amour CPAs.

They’re both successful businessmen. They’re both very humble. Both of them are able to make the tough decisions when tough decisions need to be made. They’re truly supportive, passionate people who want to see this museum succeed.

You know, when I was coming in four years ago, the museum had not been in a good position. I came in at the tail end of that difficulty. Gary and Cliff were the two to shepherd the museum through that – for about a year without a director. They were very clear about what the situation was with the community, with the board, with the media, and what decisions had been made for the museum to survive. They were very transparent with me and with the board and in making tough decisions.

It takes a lot of guts to stand up and say those things, make those decisions, and know that some people are going to be very disappointed.

This was a volunteer role for them as board chairs, but they spent so much time it was a second job. While they had to make some unpopular decisions, they were still able to build consensus. I learned so much from them.

Let me flip my question: What attributes do you see in poor leadership or poor leaders?

I’ve had bosses that just would not stand up for the right thing, who weren’t making ethical decisions. A good leader has to be ethical.

Poor leaders are not communicative. They keep things very closed and they’re not being transparent about things. That does no one any good because the information comes out at some point and then you’re trying to clean up after it.

You can’t divulge everything to everyone all the time, but being as transparent as possible is always important.

A poor leader shifts blame, points fingers, makes excuses.

If something goes wrong, ultimately it’s up to the leader to make it right. If something’s not working or if a mistake is made or we’ve done something wrong, I have to own it. I’m in charge. I can’t let a staff person fall on the sword. I appointed that person or I gave them the responsibilities.

So the leader has to take responsibility.

Obviously we can’t control certain things. But you have to be ready, willing and able to pivot and make changes based on changing circumstances.

What do people want from leaders?

We want to be inspired. We want guidance. We want our leaders to set a direction and steer the course for the organization. I want leaders to have me and my interests in mind, to have my interests at heart. They should know I have their back just as much as they have my back.

The team really wants to be appreciated. They need to know they are valued and that they’re making a contribution. I’ve seen how effective even phone calls I make can be. I get thank-you cards for my thank-you calls. You can see how a thank you invigorates people the next time you see them.

What should a leader do to spark innovation?

Our daily huddles go to that. You know, some ideas are good ideas, some are not good ideas, but everybody is welcome to put them out.

One of the things that I’ve tried to promote is that we are not risk averse. We are ready and able to try new things. They’re not all gonna work. And we acknowledge that. We tried some things early on that were very successful. Some things weren’t as successful and it may have been due to timing or other circumstances, but I want people to feel they are able to bring ideas to the table.

I think there’s an expectation that we continue to push forward, always trying to do better. Across the board, the people that I’ve hired have that belief. We don’t hire people who just want to sit down, do their daily chores, clock in, clock out, and get a paycheck. No. Everybody is here because they want change.

Part of innovation is being open to ideas and giving opportunities to have ideas. OK, you’re in this role. How do you want to see this job shift or this department change? What are the things that we’re not doing that you want to be doing? Instead of me telling you, you tell me what you think we should be doing.

Leaders who want innovation need to give people ownership of their departments and of their programs. The first step is giving them the autonomy to actually think for themselves. You don’t want people thinking: Well, this is the way we’ve always done it.

You want them thinking: Well, what if we just don’t do it that way anymore? What if we did it this way? What if we could start over? Give me an idea, and how would you do it over? What are your ideas for changing that? What are the things that we’re not doing that we should be doing?

Give people the freedom to actually think, to be aspirational. Make it clear that we know this is a risk and it might not work. We’re humans; we’re not going to be perfect. Some things are gonna work, some things aren’t gonna work, and we’re going to learn from those experiences. We’re going to take that data and utilize it in a way that we can benefit from in the future. It’s creating the culture of don’t be afraid.

Finally, have fun. This is serious work, but it shouldn’t just be a job. We all want to be here because we’re passionate and we believe in it.